Say Again? #23:
May Day

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Spring has sprung, the birds are singing, and more planes are flying. Time to think about the unthinkable -- what to do during an emergency. AVweb's Don Brown reminds us what ATC can do to help.

Say Again?

Here it is the first day of May. It's hard to believe it's here already. The daffodils are done. The azaleas are blooming and it's time to put the tomato seedlings in the ground. What? You wanted me to write an article about emergencies? You meant "MAYDAY!" huh? It just goes to show you how confusing things can get. It's like saying "Hi" to your friend "Jack" when the radio is keyed. That can lead to a lot of confusion too.

The reason I've been putting off such an obvious article for so long is that there really isn't much to say about emergencies. Not when you get down to brass tacks anyway. You, as a pilot, do what you have to do. We, as controllers, do whatever we can to help out. The other problem is the wide range of circumstances emergencies cover. There's a heck of a difference in trying to handle a VFR student pilot who got into the clouds and an airliner that is on fire.

The No-Rules Rule

For those who read my column on a regular basis, you know that the first thing I'm going to do on any subject is refer to "the book." From the AIM:

Chapter 6. Emergency Procedures

6-1-1. Pilot Responsibility and Authority

a. The pilot-in-command of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft. In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot-in-command may deviate from any rule in 14 CFR Part 91, Subpart A, General, and Subpart B, Flight Rules, to the extent required to meet that emergency.

Interesting, no? That's one mighty paragraph. In an emergency, you can "deviate" from any rule. Of course, with that "authority" comes the responsibility too.

The controller's "bible," like the AIM, has an entire chapter devoted to emergency procedures: Chapter 10 of the FAA 7110.65.

So I am (of course) going to start in Chapter 2. Hey, if this wasn't confusing you'd just read it for yourself and I wouldn't have anything to do on my weekends!

Who's On First?


a. An aircraft in distress has the right of way over all other air traffic.

For those who actually click on that link: Keep scrolling down and you'll notice "all other air traffic" means just that. Next on the list is Lifeguards. I had to explain that to a Lifeguard flight recently. On the frequency. I really don't like having to explain myself to other pilots when I'm working an emergency. Just something for you to think about when you make that routine switch to the next frequency. You really don't know what's going on in that sector. I'll stop there before I get started on my usual rant about following the rules.

For the really curious, keep scrolling down though that chapter. You'll notice some really, uh, interesting call signs. They might give you an idea of some of the things controllers do that don't cross your mind very often.

Where were we? Oh yeah, emergencies. Now that you know that aircraft in distress have priority we go to "Duty Priority."


a. Give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts as required in this order. Good judgment shall be used in prioritizing all other provisions of this order based on the requirements of the situation at hand.

REFERENCE- FAAO 7110.65, Safety Alert, Para 2-1-6.

NOTE- Because there are many variables involved, it is virtually impossible to develop a standard list of duty priorities that would apply uniformly to every conceivable situation. Each set of circumstances must be evaluated on its own merit, and when more than one action is required, controllers shall exercise their best judgment based on the facts and circumstances known to them. That action which is most critical from a safety standpoint is performed first.

There are a few things that you can glean from that paragraph. First, we don't get to stop separating other airplanes just because we're working an emergency. Second, the most critical safety problem gets handled first. For example: The guy that's on fire gets priority over the twin that lost an engine. Yes Virginia, there are cases where controllers have had to handle more than one emergency at a time. I know, you'd think that the chances are just too remote. It's happened. A lot more than once.

First Things First

Finally. Chapter 10. Emergencies.

The first thing you have to do as a controller is to determine if an emergency condition exists. You would think this would be a straightforward, unambiguous process. It should be. But it isn't. First the rules, then the rant.


a. An emergency can be either a Distress or an Urgency condition as defined in the "Pilot/Controller Glossary."

b. A pilot who encounters a Distress condition should declare an emergency by beginning the initial communication with the word "Mayday," preferably repeated three times. For an Urgency condition, the word "Pan-Pan" should be used in the same manner.

c. If the words "Mayday" or "Pan-Pan" are not used and you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.

d. Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual.

What the heck, let's toss in the AIM while I'm at it.

6-1-2. Emergency Condition- Request Assistance Immediately

a. An emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition as defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary. Pilots do not hesitate to declare an emergency when they are faced with distress conditions such as fire, mechanical failure, or structural damage. However, some are reluctant to report an urgency condition when they encounter situations which may not be immediately perilous, but are potentially catastrophic. An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about position, fuel endurance, weather, or any other condition that could adversely affect flight safety. This is the time to ask for help, not after the situation has developed into a distress condition.

b. Pilots who become apprehensive for their safety for any reason should request assistance immediately. Ready and willing help is available in the form of radio, radar, direction finding stations and other aircraft. Delay has caused accidents and cost lives. Safety is not a luxury! Take action!

Dead Men Tell No Tales

I don't know about you, but I can't recall the sedate, low-key technical writers of the FAA using many exclamation points. Seeing as I'm not confined by the restraints placed upon them, let me use my freedom for a good cause and rephrase that last sentence. Strictly to get your attention of course.


If you're sitting in an airplane and you know you're getting into trouble, then the last thought that ought to be running through your mind is what kind of legal trouble you might get into if you ask for help. Even if you broke every rule in the book to get yourself into that trouble, it ought not take more than a split second to make the decision. Busted or dead? Make it now so you don't have to decide when the adrenalin kicks in. It's a no-brainer.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Time is the eternal enemy in air traffic control. While you're sitting there debating about asking for help time is running out. Controllers can do a lot of things but we can't stop the clock.

The Peter Pan Principle

Do you know that in my entire 20+ year career I've never heard the phrase "Pan-Pan" on the frequency? Can anyone explain that one to me? I've only heard the phrase "Mayday" once. Want to explain that? I've worked a dozen emergencies. What's up folks?

This is how it's done, guys:

"Mayday, mayday, mayday, Atlanta Center, N12345 has lost our engine and we need vectors to the nearest airport."

I will guarantee you, even if I've got my cord stretched out to the other side of the control room, talking to my buddy about his retirement party, I'll be back if front of the scope before you're done with that third "mayday." Even if I'm talking to CLT Approach on the land-line, trying to coordinate the arrival of Air Force One, I will hang up before you're done and you will have my complete attention.

That's what it's designed to do: get attention. It even says so in the book.

AIM Chapter 6-3-1

d. Distress communications have absolute priority over all other communications, and the word MAYDAY commands radio silence on the frequency in use. Urgency communications have priority over all other communications except distress, and the word PAN-PAN warns other stations not to interfere with urgency transmissions.

That's my favorite part: "Commands radio silence on the frequency in use."

Mental Malfunctions

The best part for controllers though is that there isn't any doubt about how serious the situation is. Remember I said this should be a straightforward, unambiguous process? Sometimes it isn't.

"Atlanta Center, Airliner123, our yaw-damper has failed."

"Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345, we've lost our gyro."

"Atlanta Center, Bizjet234, we've got a malfunctioning static port."

Are any of those emergencies? You've got me. I don't know. I wouldn't know a yaw-damper from a clothes hamper. I'm not a pilot. Neither are the vast majority of other controllers. When we get one of these reports, we're supposed to move to the next step.


a. When a pilot reports an inflight equipment malfunction, determine the nature and extent of any special handling desired.

So you can expect the question, "N12345 do you need any special handling?" If you need a vector, a lower altitude, a block of altitude, if you need to slow down -- whatever it is -- just tell us what you need. Do not assume the controller knows anything about flying or anything about your particular airplane. Not even the number of engines you have (or don't have). Plain English will be fine.

The Pucker Factor

OK. I lied. There actually is a lot to say about emergencies. Because of the vast array of circumstances that could constitute an emergency, there's an almost limitless amount of knowledge you might need to handle them. That's the reason that a controller's first action when a pilot declares an emergency is to get some help. Lots of help. As much help as will fit at the sector.

After we panic of course. Oh, no one is going to admit to it. We're too cool to do that. But I bet if there was such a thing as an adrenaline meter we could have pegged it a time or two. When the C-130 driver says he's lost an engine so he has to declare an emergency, you can be cool about it. When the Cessna 182 driver says he's losing his engine, you're already covered up with airplanes and it's 200 and 1/2, that's another thing.

A Semi-True Story

Just to keep it simple, let's run with that one to show you how it works. You're a Cessna 182 at 9,000 en route and your engine starts acting up 20 miles north of Hickory, N.C. (HKY).

"Mayday, mayday, mayday, Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 our engine is running rough, we need vectors to the nearest airport."

Hopefully your controller will be on the ball and know where the best weather is and the best approaches. It's 200 overcast and 1/2 mile visibility at HKY. You're actually closer to Wilkesboro, N.C. (UKF), but the controller doesn't have access to the AWOS there. If it's me working you, I'm going to hedge my bet. I'm going with what I know and leave myself room for Plan B.

"Cessna 345 roger, fly heading 165 radar vectors ILS runway 24 Hickory. Minimum altitude in your area is 4,300."

Location, Location, Location

We're five seconds into this and I've already had enough thoughts run through my head to write an entire article. The Minimum Instrument Altitude (MIA) at UKF is 4,300. At HKY, it's 3,400. That's 900 feet of altitude we might need. The ILS for UKF is to RWY 01. Considering the turn-on points for the ILS to UKF and HKY, it's almost a tie as to which one is closer. HKY has a control tower, an Interstate and a river. UKF just has mountains.

Take a pause here just to think about how important it can be for controllers to know their airspace. The only reason I know mine this well is that I've worked it for years. I've made the effort to drive through the area several times. I even took an aerial tour once just so I could see what it looks like from the air.

Remember that the next time some bean counter with a better idea tries to tell you it doesn't matter where the controller works -- airspace is airspace. We have the technical capabilities to work my airspace from anywhere in the country. That doesn't mean we should. When they try to tell you how much money it could save, you might want to ask yourself if it's worth the price.

Movin' Metal

Back to the emergency. If there's anyone between you and the airport, I'll move them out of the way. Way out of the way. The D-side (data controller), assuming I have one, will notify the supervisor. The supe will get us a third controller (called a Tracker), and everyone will start trying to get up to speed on what is happening.

Just as the pilot has his hands full, the controller working the emergency does too. Any controller called over to help (and the supervisor) will have to be briefed on the situation. It will only take a few seconds, but sometimes you don't have a few seconds to spare. If we think it will be useful, we'll start searching for some of our controllers who are also pilots. Especially one who might be type-rated in the particular aircraft involved.

Dialing For Dollars

No one really has to notify the sectors around you. They figure it out real quick and start routing other airplanes away from your airspace. We'll probably call all the surrounding approach controls and have them stop their departures into the affected sector and/or reroute them away from the sector. HKY tower will have to be notified. They'll have calls of their own to make. In this case, I'd get the supe to call the AWOS number for UKF and find out if the weather is better than Hickory's.

The object in all this, for a controller, is to get to the point that the radar controller (the one talking on the radio to the pilot) doesn't have anything to think about, listen to, or look at but that one single airplane. The D-side and the Tracker will wind up working the sector. When something needs to be done with another airplane, they'll wait for a quiet moment, point to the airplane on the scope and say, "Switch Bizjet123 to 134.55." Or, "Descend Commuter123 to 9,000." The radar controller doesn't have to think about it, he doesn't even have to understand it; he just has to do it.

Time. It's Not on Your Side

Again, depending upon the circumstances, it can take anywhere from two to 10 minutes to get to that point. As you can imagine, some emergencies don't last that long. You do what you can with what you have in the amount of time you have to do it.

I won't even pretend to actually know everything the pilot is trying to deal with during this phase. Personally, once I've got him pointed in the right direction, I try to say as little as possible. I've got a dozen things to do and I figure he does too. Whether he starts with his emergency checklist, pulls out his approach plates or tries to restart his engine, I figure that's up to him.

In today's GPS environment, his first question will probably be "What's the identifier for Hickory." If that's where he wants to start, that's where we'll start. If he wants me to read him the localizer frequency, then that's what we'll do. I'll read him the whole approach if that's what he wants. My feeling is to give him what he wants, when he's ready for it, and not to add to his workload or interrupt his concentration.


At some point in time, I will need to ask him about his fuel on board (FOB) and souls on board (SOB). That requirement is found in the 7110.65 10-2-1. If you take the time to look, you'll see there's a long list of information we need. But if you're IFR (and therefore have a flight plan on file), we already have access (through FSS) to it all except the fuel on board and souls on board. Besides that, I have a sneaking suspicion the FOB and SOB is so they'll know how many ambulances to have on hand and how big a fire truck to have standing by. But let's not go there. We're going to get out of this jam. Oh, please note, the FOB is the amount of fuel remaining in time.

OK. We've got everybody in place, all the notifications have been made, and you've got the approach information. Now it's time to think. What else do we need to get out of this mess? Nothing but altitude and/or a decent engine.

"Cessna 345, say your rate of descent."

"Uh, we're showing about 300 feet per minute but the engine is getting rougher."

I'll start doing some mental calculations (throwing in a large fudge factor) to see if I need to turn him in tighter or if we have enough altitude to make a nice stable approach.

I Think I Can, I Think I Can Think

A decent engine. Engines ... engines ... engines ... Who knows about engines?

"Hey! Anybody know anything about Cessna 182 engines?"

Where's a mechanic when you need one? I've got a pilot/controller listening and watching with me, but what I really need is a mechanic. They're at the airport, stupid.

"Hickory Tower, Wilkes Sector."

"Hickory Tower."

"Call up the FBO and see if you can get a someone that knows about C-182s in on this. You've got five minutes before we run out of time."

In case you're wondering, yes, there's a lot of truth to this story. And no, I wasn't that smart. The one piece of the puzzle I really needed to know was the descent rate. I didn't calculate it and I didn't ask. That's the reason my real emergency was on a 1/2-mile final and 1,000 feet too high. I was worried about running out of altitude, not about having too much.

I don't know who came up with the bright idea about getting a mechanic to listen in either. I just know it wasn't me. Whoever it was saved the day. Hickory didn't have a tower at the time, so it was probably the fine folks that used to run Hickory Flight Service. I always thought they were the best in the business. Even if it wasn't their idea, they knew just the guy to get. It didn't take him any time to diagnose the problem. Full power restored, and another satisfied customer continued on his merry way.

Lessons Learned

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from any emergency. Frankly, I wish the FAA would spend more time reviewing them and teaching those lessons. What I've learned from the few emergencies I've worked is that it's hard to have too much help. It's real easy to have too many people trying to talk to you. Task saturation is all too common. But if you can organize the flow of information, the more people thinking of solutions the better.

The amount of resources we can quickly bring to bear on an emergency can be truly amazing. If we have time. I've seen other pilots brought onto the frequency to help. I've seen cellphones used to replace radios. I've seen the military jump in to help on more than one occasion. They have some phenomenal resources that are there for the asking.

But you have to ask. You have to ask in time.

Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC